Lonely In a Crowd

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Being lonely in a room full of people can be disconcerting. You might call it “lonely in a crowd.” Not such a great place to find yourself! In these days of waiting to be transplanted, I find that this is precisely where I am, lonely in a crowd. Not alone, just lonely, as if being where I am emotionally is a place where no one has ever been before. No one I know is with me on this massive, nationwide transplant list!

People call it a “wait list,” and that is actually a very good name for it, because all you can do when you’re on it is wait. No one ever reassures you that your name has not been accidentally removed. No one gives you a magic beeper that you keep until you hear that glorious beeping that means they have a table for you. No one says, “Thank you for waiting. One of our representatives will be with you shortly.” No one tells you anything at all. It’s just a wait list and all you can do on there is wait.

The result is that being on a huge, invisible, impersonal list is a lonely place to be. As I sat in church on Sunday, with a fairly large congregation in fact.  I realized that we were gathered together but we were not really with each other. I looked all around me and thought, “I don’t know these people and they don’t know me. In a few minutes, we will all leave here, and I will have emotionally connected with no one.”

It made me sad, and all the more lonely. It’s my own fault, I suppose. I could make a concerted effort to engage more fully with the worshippers that surround me each Sunday. I could will myself to go deeper into conversations than, “How are you? I’m fine, thank you.” Surely there is another appropriate thing to say after such customary and gentile greetings. Whatever it is, I don’t say it. Therefore, I depart from the church a little bit lonelier than when I came. 

I left my church in Little Rock when we moved here to Macon, Georgia, almost five years ago. Leaving New Millennium Church was heartbreaking. I grieved for the good people of New Millennium for almost two years. I served as Minister of Worship there before I got sick. My mission was to plan worship each Sunday for a congregation that already knew how to worship. When New Millennium people took my plans for prayers and hymns and litanies, they lived into them freely and fully as they worshipped, and what emerged from the people was somewhere between pure exuberance and holy reverence.

And one more thing. It can truly be said of New Millennium that no one could leave there lonely. The people of the church had a way about them, almost like they collectively gave a perennial hug that expressed this truth: “God is with you, and I’m with you, too.”

I remember well the Sunday we sang this familiar hymn with a wonderfully comforting text.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting in His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw still closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

A congregation can always sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” but New Millennium Church really SANG this song — with empathy, with joy, with a special kind of conviction that forced you to believe its message. Indeed it is a message worth believing, worth taking into your very soul, all the way into that loneliest place.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered.

 — Matthew 10:29-30 New International Version (NIV)

Yes, I am lonely. Sometimes even in the presence of people. Sometimes even in church. But I have a couple of choices: I can make a real effort to insert myself into the lives of the people around me. OR I can just accept the reality of the lonely place I am in right now and rest in it, with the assurance that, like the song says, God really does watch over me.

In your quiet time today, perhaps you would like to hear this beautiful song. I invite you to watch this video:

Resurrection People

C1D1BB39-1AD2-4D57-8ED7-8464718B35D8On Resurrection Sunday, I cry joy-tears — every time, without fail. For me, holding on to my emotions on Resurrection Sunday is impossible. After going through Lent, after hearing again of the betrayal Jesus experienced, after witnessing the suffering and execution of Christ, after acknowledging anew that Christ’s sacrifice was for the whole world and for me, I celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And when I do, I just cry.

But on Resurrection Sunday 2018, I wept with a heavy heart and a flood of memories. I thought of Easters past and the people of God with whom I celebrated. All of those precious friends now live miles away, others live in heaven. I was their pastor, and that is as holy a relationship as I can describe.

I walked with them through joy and tragedy, through days of health and days of illness, through crushing family problems, through death and divorce. But through every devastation, we celebrated Resurrection Sundays in our beautiful monastery chapel, in our little country church in small town Arkansas, at an altar on a lakeside, in the baptismal waters. We celebrated our covenant, our deep friendship, and gave thanks for the grace that gifted us with those relationships.

We were a fun and creative group. With some of them, I cut and stitched and glued and appliqued huge banners proclaiming, “Christ Is Risen!” With others, I burned palm branches for Ash Wednesday. With others, I lifted up the wooden cross onto thevaltar of the church sanctuary. And with others, I wandered through the woods searching for dogwood blossoms to adorn the wooden cross. I most fondly remember a circuitous and hilarious trek through the forest with Ethel.

Ethel was a true jewel, one of a kind. Never would you find a more loyal and loving parishioner than Ethel, who will always be known as the persevering founder of our church. She refused to let it fail. She was persistent and feisty and determined. And because of her, the church still stands firm, even now that she is gone.

But getting back to our trek in the forest, I have to say that Ethel was one of those unstoppable “elderly” people. She could barely walk at times because she suffered with a muscle disease that weakened her legs. But she pushed her way through the forest that day, leading me, pushing aside the limbs, vines and thorns, and dauntlessly creating our path over rocks and depressions in the ground. We were looking for a thorn tree . . . you guessed it . . . to use in making a crown of thorns.

Eventually we found a perfect thorn vine with angry-looking three-inch thorns on it. We carefully hauled it through the woods, trying to avoid getting stabbed by one of those sharp thorns. Then we put it in a bathtub full of water to soften it. When we began to bend it into a crown shape, we both sustained painful thorn wounds. Never to be deterred, Ethel managed to shape and finally fasten the two ends together, and the prickly vine became the crown of thorns that we used for many years.

When we placed it for the first time on the Good Friday cross during the church service, I wept. Many of us wept. We were like that because we remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah.

He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth . . .

— Isaiah 53:3-7, KJV

We knew that after the suffering, the resurrection would most surely come. Through the passion and emotion of Good Friday, we wept. But we wept even more when the stark cross flowered on Easter morning, when we lit the Christ candle, when the black shroud was removed, and when we draped the cross in glistening white cloth.

So on Resurrection Sunday 2018, while singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,”I wept with tears of gratitude, gratitude for the people of God through the years who made my Easters such sacred experiences of worship.

Ethel, Barbara, Johnnie, April, Bo, Michael, Stan, Dianna, Eric and Emily, Ann, Sister Bernadette, Gail, Noah, Wendell, Pat, Joyce, Suzette, Deborah, Cindy, Barbara Fay, Regina, Tonya, Vallory, Leroy, Mary, LaVante, Shirley, Ken, Steve, Jenna . . .

So many names! So many others. My memories of them brought me to tears on Easter Sunday. I saw them in my mind and remembered our shared times of worship. They are Resurrection people all, people who know how to proclaim Christ’s resurrection with passion, devotion and celebration. For all of them, today I give thanks.

Behaving in Church

 

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Pope Francis preaching as a child sits nearby

I was moved today by a statement a friend made in a conversation. She is a mother of young children, and she said that she loved worshipping with her children and watching their responses to the worship experience. It was such a contrast, I thought, to the typical responses of parents through the ages struggling to corral their children during worship. When my son was young, I did some powerful corralling myself trying to keep a very active boy still and quiet in church.

Looking back, I wonder what made me believe that worshipping always needed to be still and quiet. I wonder what I might have learned from my child if he had been encouraged to offer his own expressions in worship. And, of course, I cherish and miss those days of taking my very expressive toddler to “big church.”

There is a delightful article by Jamie Bruesehoff printed in The Huffington Post (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamie-bruesehoff/parents-kids-church_b_3909085.html) entitled “Dear Parents With Young Children in Church.”

I see you with your toddler and your preschooler. I watch you cringe when your little girl asks an innocent question in a voice that might not be an inside voice let alone a church whisper. I hear the exasperation in your voice as you beg your child to just sit, to be quiet as you feel everyone’s eyes on you . . . When you are here, the church is filled with a joyful noise . . . I know that they [the children] are learning how and why we worship . . . They are learning that worship is important.

I see them learning. In the midst of the cries, whines, and giggles, in the midst of the crinkling of pretzel bags and the growing pile of crumbs, I see a little girl who insists on going two pews up to share peace with someone she’s never met. I hear a little boy slurping (quite loudly) every last drop of his communion wine out of the cup, determined not to miss a drop of Jesus. I watch a child excitedly color a cross and point to the one in the front of the sanctuary. I hear the echos of “Amens” just a few seconds after the rest of the community says it together. I watch a boy just learning to read try to sound out the words in the worship book or count his way to Hymn 672 . . . I can see your children learning.

Jamie Bruesehoff’s words call us to cherish the children among us, just as Jesus did so long ago.

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

Matthew 19:13-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

It seems that recently, Pope Francis mirrored the actions of Jesus according to a post by UCatholic.

A beautiful little girl with Down syndrome, got up from her seat during a papal audience and went toward the Pope. The security guards quickly moved in to take her back to her mother. The Pope stopped everyone and said to the girl, “come sit next to me.” The girl then sat down near him and the Holy Father continued to preach while holding hands with the little girl.

Our words matter. What we say to our children becomes a part their memories.

As a child, I heard some pretty strong words about my church behavior. I heard such words as an adult. I even said some of them myself. “Sit still in church! Quit wiggling around so much! Be quiet! Children have to behave in church! Behaving like that in church is not pleasing to God!”

Or maybe these words are more Christlike. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them.”

Amen.